Synchronized swimming is a sport that is easy to make fun of—like ice dancing, maybe, or curling. It consists of individuals or teams performing routines set to music in a swimming pool. Synchronized swimmers may be the target of teasing, but the sport requires strength, endurance, grace, precision, and the ability to work with others. Unlike all of the spoofs of water ballet in movies, in synchro swimmers are not allowed to touch the bottom of the pool. Typically, they perform in water that is a minimum of nine feet deep; they stay above water using a variety of kicks, including one called eggbeater, which is a form of treading water. It’s hard enough to keep one’s own head, arms, and shoulders clear of the water, but advanced swimmers often perform lifts, raising teammates up to or above the surface of the water without ever touching or pushing off the pool bottom.

Aside from the bathing suit, noseclips are the only equipment used by synchronized swimmers—these keep water out of the nose when the swimmer is under water. Underwater speakers make it possible for swimmers to hear the music, and swimmers keep their eyes open underwater so that they can see their teammates and maintain correct alignment for figures. Sculling is a common form of locomotion in synchro; it consists of moving the hands rapidly in such a way as to move from place to place with a minimum of splashing. It takes a good deal of practice to perfect all of the splits, spins, leg lifts, twists, and sequential and simultaneous movements used in synchronized swimming. One of the hardest parts is performing these figures s l o w l y ; not rushing through the moves; exhibiting the proper form, strength, and control. Judges evaluate swimmers’ timing, flexibility, balance, and control, as well as artistic merits: complexity of patterns, synchronization, time under water, body weight lifted above the surface, and precision. Because this is a performance sport, athletes are expected to smile while executing these moves. They usually smile with their mouths open, trying to (subtly) catch their breaths.

Synchronized swimming was first recognized on a collegiate level in 1939, and in 1940 Esther Williams, U.S. freestyle champion and Olympic contender, did a lot to popularize the sport by performing in the San Francisco World’s Fair Aquacade. She later appeared in several MGM movies, including Bathing Beauty (1944), Neptune's Daughter (1949), Dangerous When Wet (1953), Easy to Love (1953), and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). Solo synchronized swimming was first accepted as an Olympic event in 1984, and the team event premiered at Atlanta's 1996 Olympic Games, where team USA scored a perfect 100 on their free routine and won Olympic gold.


A little-known fact about synchronized swimming: Swimmers use jell-o to keep their hair back. They pin it up and back in a bun, and then spread a mixture of unflavored gelatin and hot water on their hair; once dried with a hairdryer, this mixture forms a water-tight bond to keep hair in place while they’re performing.

Sources:, 5/5/02 , 5/5/02, 5/5/02 . . . and four years on the “Mermettes” team at Wm & Mary.

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